Issue Number 19 - December 5, 2002





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On December 1, events in Washington, DC and around the world commemorated World AIDS Day. Throughout this week we focus on the terrible toll this plague has taken, and continues to take, in our communities, across our country, and worldwide. It is a time when we reflect on our shared vulnerability in the face of this greatest global threat to human security.

A mere two decades since its discovery, AIDS has become the worst health crisis in the history of the world. The toll of the disease is staggering. More than 24 million people worldwide have died. At least 40 million more are currently living with HIV/AIDS. New estimates from the United Nations, the Center for Disease Control, and others, indicate that the global pandemic is still in its infancy. They warn of rising infection rates and the impending devastation of entire countries.

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is the elimination of stigma and discrimination. This is sadly appropriate, for it is now clear that, while AIDS can be beaten, the world is losing the battle because of these prejudices. By stigmatizing those living with HIV/AIDS, societies seek to distance themselves from the disease, rejecting the notion that this is everyone's problem. And it is blatant discrimination - on the basis of race, class, gender and sexual orientation - when governments deny the urgency of this global crisis because of who the victims are.

Africa is "ground zero" of the global AIDS crisis. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to just over 10% of the world's population, but more than 75% of the world's HIV/AIDS cases. Africa has been hit hardest by HIV/AIDS because poverty has left its people most vulnerable, and because racism has impeded an urgent international response. This year alone, 3 million Africans will die of AIDS. This is equivalent to the entire population of Chicago.

Here in the U.S., it is also Black people who have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. While the availability of anti-AIDS treatments has cut the death rate in recent years, infection rates remain especially high among communities of color. Though African-Americans represent only an estimated 12% of the total U.S. population, they make up almost 38% of all HIV/AIDS cases reported in this country. In 2000, the rate of reported AIDS cases among African Americans was more than twice the rate for Hispanics and 8 times the rate for whites.

Here in Washington, DC, the rate of HIV/AIDS is 12 times the national average. Almost 1 in 20 D.C. residents are living with HIV/AIDS. African-Americans represent 60% of DC's population, but more than 75% of its HIV/AIDS cases.

In Georgia, HIV/AIDS has also been disproportionately concentrated in the Black community. Blacks represent just 28% of Georgia's population, but accounted for over 76% of its AIDS cases this year. In California, Blacks make up less than 7% of the population, but account for almost 24% of people living with HIV/AIDS.

In Houston, the AIDS rate has risen dramatically in the past year, particularly in the Black community. While the "state of emergency" declaration by Mayor Lee Brown in 1999 has encouraged more people to get tested, and to get treated, the HIV/AIDS rate among Blacks remains disproportionately high. Up to 60% of HIV infections in Harris County have been among Black people. New York City is home to 3% of the U.S. population, but 16% of its HIV/AIDS cases. There are more people living with HIV/AIDS in New York City than in any other metropolitan area - more than Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami combined. There are almost twice as many HIV/AIDS cases among Blacks as among whites.

It is the same factors that fuel the AIDS crisis everywhere. Poverty and inadequate access to health care leave particular communities vulnerable. Discrimination and racism enforce double standards that devalue the lives of people living with the disease and those at greatest risk. AIDS has become the Black plague. For while it is a global threat that does not differentiate by race or class, and is not confined by borders, the fact is that it is mainly killing Black people. And this is the simple reason why this disease has been allowed to develop into a massive global health crisis, when it can, in fact, be defeated

Last year, world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York to adopt a global strategy to defeat HIV/AIDS. They supported the creation of a new Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, a "war chest" that would raise and disburse new monies to support effective HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in the world's poorest countries. It seemed that the international community was finally ready to make the necessary, and overdue, financial commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS. However, the new Global Fund has been undermined from the outset by the stinginess of rich country governments. This vehicle, which represents the best chance for defeating the global AIDS crisis, is now almost bankrupt, because the U.S. government refuses to contribute its fair share to the war on AIDS.

AIDS will not be beaten without a strong global commitment and a massive injection of resources. This must be directed to support the efforts of those most affected by the pandemic, particularly in Africa, the epicenter of the global crisis. So far, the U.S. government has failed to demonstrate the leadership it will require to win this war on AIDS.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently accepted the position of the AIDS activist community, declaring that "the biggest problem that we have on the face of the earth today" is the HIV/AIDS pandemic, not terrorism. If rhetoric were resources, we could applaud such forthrightness.

The observance of World AIDS Day emphasizes the truly global nature of this pandemic. And it reminds us that the solution needs to be equally global.

Salih Booker is executive director of Africa Action, the oldest human rights advocacy organization on African affairs in the US.

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